Sunday, October 5, 2014

See You Next Year!

On Sunday morning I made one last visit to Bethel Children's Home, to spend more time with the kids, and give Jun Khaing Htoo his new sandals. Jun Khaing has a club foot, and can't wear flip flops like every other person in Burma. We found some Teva like sandals in the market for him for only $1, and he couldn't be more pleased (they are replacing a pair of Wellington boots which are very hot). Before coming to the orphanage, he never had shoes and walked barefoot on the side of his foot.  I am working on raising funds to take him to an orthopedic surgeon to see if he is a candidate for corrective surgery.

It was a little sad to say goodbye, but it was only "See you next year!", one of the phrases they have learned in English.  It was harder to say goodbye to Virginia.  But I call her once a month for 45 minutes (via Skype) to check in and see how they are all doing, and of course I promised to come back next year.  After this visit I feel more connected to the place, and it feels less foreign. I think this time I left a little piece of me there.

On the long, hot bus ride back to Yangon, I marinated in my own sweat and was poached well in that steam shower on wheels. Yangon was equally stifling and even a little rain in the evening could not break it.  I hope the SoCal heat wave breaks by the time I get home, I've had enough!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mango Pickles

Today Virginia and I went to the pharmacy for the kids’ medicine, and did a little more shopping before retiring for lunch in the home of Jonathan’s sister. She lives in the middle of town, in her husband’s family’s old electrical shop.  The shop no longer operates but she has a business making mango pickles. They are sold all over town.  I think mango pickles are a uniquely Burmese thing, but I can’t be sure. It is different than mango chutney from India: tart and tangy and sweet.  I was the first foreigner to her house and she was nervous, but she is a great cook and she was delighted that I scarfed down everything, including my fair share of mango pickles!

During my visit I learned more about the backgrounds of Jonathan and Virginia. Like my father, they come from a mixed background. Virginia’s father was ½ Shan and ½ British – just like my father. Her mother was ½ Karen (another Burmese tribe) and ½ Sinolese.  Jonathan’s father was Burmese, English and Indian and his mother was ½ Shan and ½ English. The stories about War World II (just “the war”) are fascinating.  I think in sharing our stories we felt an affinity – even though we grew up in different worlds, we do have something in common (besides our love for orphans!)

On my way back to the hotel we stopped to load up on dahl fritters and Burmese-style eggrolls for the kids’ special dinner treat. 60 pieces for $3.60 – you can’t beat it. So some things are the same here – cheap, excellent food. But I got the shock of my life today when I actually pulled money out of an ATM.  Virginia was laughing at me because I was absolutely flabbergasted. This is new since February.  Gone are the days of carrying in all the money you need in crisp $100 bills. Even a small fold on the corner would cause a money changer to reject the bill (still does). It’s a pain, and I always feared not having enough so I would bring heaps of cash – not the best practice for third world traveling. But that’s done.  Another one of the quirks of entering Myanmar is gone.

I had already been a bit shocked this trip when I turned on my cell phone and had 4 bars.  It didn’t work in February here.  But in the far west, delta region of the country I was receiving text messages on my birthday over the cell network.   A far cry from 2008 when entering the country equated radio silence until you emerged.  (I didn’t even mention that in February we discovered wi-fi everywhere, in cafes, guesthouses and public spaces.  Also, I was able to use Mastercard many places I couldn’t before).

So the roads are still lousy – even the new one linking Yangon and Mandalay – and the traffic in Yangon has gone from bad to standstill, but it is getting easier.  

Time for the rest of you to visit!

Friday, October 3, 2014

It's About the Kids

It has been a couple busy days.  Thursday was going over the children’s records and preparing for the meeting of the management committee of the orphanage. I brought a portable printer so the Type A in me was able to print an agenda for the meeting. I was fortunate to have the participation of David Causkill from ICC Australia, an NGO that has been operating in Myanmar for many years. He was just visiting the school adjacent to the orphanage but when he visited Bethel Children’s Home and met Virginia and Jonathan, he was impressed and wanted to help.
The girls' dorm. It desperately needs weather proofing improvements , a project for February
With David’s guidance and suggestions, we decided to prepare a memorandum of understanding between the school and Bethel Children’s Home regarding a number of matters related to access, boundaries, water, electricity, and other important operational matters. I worked on the MOU through dinner and then drove to town to meet with the representatives from the school.  From a legal standpoint I don’t think any of it is binding. But here, that doesn’t matter (there is no effective legal system to speak of).  We have the school’s written statement that they will do certain things to benefit and protect the orphanage and when we visit next we can hold it up and say “you agreed.”  Honor does mean something here.

In between, we took the 4 kids to the clinic, but all that happened was that tests were ordered for 3 and we had to bring them back the next day. The two blood tests and one chest x-ray cost less than $15, amazing. We then had to drag the kids back to the clinic in the evening for the results and prescriptions.  
The doctor at the clinic didn’t charge us for the visits when she found that the kids were orphans, even though I was there (with bulging American pockets).  The final upshot: two girls positive for Hepatitis B and no TB in the boys. I will be arranging for the remainder of the children to be vaccinated for Hepatitis B.  David tells me that Hep B is very common in orphanages in Asia, so without vaccination it is inevitable that more would succumb.

Lu Bwe Do and Jun Khaing Htoo, happy BCH kids
After the final doctor visit with results, I treated the kids to ice cream at a shop in Toungoo. I think a couple of them had never had it before.  Our driver, Virginia, and Jonathan also had some, savoring it as a rare treat (the rest of the kids were at chapel, so the house parents were able to come along to the doctor).  Sometimes, it’s the small things…

The older girls, helping Virginia prepare dinner
The rest of Friday was going over the financial reports with Jonathan and re-doing the budget now that Virginia and Jonathan have been operating for the place for 6 months.  Next up: with the kids at church, Virginia is coming to town to spend the day with me going to the market and buying some things for the kids (we need to fill prescriptions and buy underwear, so exciting!) 

A number of the new children came directly from the jungle with only the clothes on their backs and no underwear or hygiene.  One of Virginia’s many roles is to each them about cleanliness and hygiene (in addition to cooking, health care, record keeping, food preparation – although with more girls now she has help, shopping). She and Jonathan do all this without pay, and even donated some of their savings to the orphanage.  She is a mama hen with 24 chicks, doting on each one.  Even David from ICC, who is completely jaded by his experience in Myanmar, described Virginia and Jonathan as “gold.”  I am glad to be here so that they know that we (Myanmar Children’s Hope Fund and the Willes family) have their backs.
Olivia knows how to cook over an open fire, as most of the girls do, coming from the jungle.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bethel Children's Home

After being waylaid by a 24 hour debilitating stomach virus in Yangon, I finally made it to Toungoo, and to Bethel Children’s Home, the orphanage we have been supporting for the last year.  I found it to be in pretty good shape, thanks to the amazing volunteers with hearts of gold, Virginia and Jonathan (a retired Burmese couple).  There are now 24 children, up from the 17 that were here in February, and ½ of them are now girls.  They seem happier, and I think the stable and calm influence of Virginia and Jonathan (who were new in February) has made a tremendous difference to these kids whose short lives have been so unstable.

I brought up for the (very long) day, Dr. Htwe Lay, a medical doctor and long time friend of our family. She did health screenings and created medical records for each of the children. We discovered than 2 brothers may have TB (their mother died from it) so I am taking them to the clinic today.  Two others may have Hep B, and I will get them tested at the clinic today too. Apparently TB and Hep B are very common in orphanages in SE Asia. I am also going to work on getting the remainder of the kids vaccinated for Hep B, something Dr. Htwe Lay will help coordinate. Luckily (and amazingly), the government here actually provides free treatment for TB, so we will be taking advantage of that. This is a benefit to being relatively close to a busy town like Toungoo where there is a government hospital.  Dr. Htwe Lay said she would come back next year with me to do annual check ups.
The kids playing dodgeball with an Australian volunteer from ICC

Already this trip has been very rewarding, and I feel like we (Myanmar Children’s Hope Fund) are making a big difference in the kids’ lives.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Through the Delta and Back

I'm back in Yangon, again at the Savoy Hotel to cool off and recharge before setting out for another remote outpost. This hotel is very nice but caters to the person who wants to "do" Burma but not really experience it. I sat in the bar for a cup of tea, kind of dumbfounded at the women in there dressed up, carrying Prada bags. Where do they go? It's honking, humid chaos outside the hotel walls. I've heard there are some fancy restaurants, but I have no desire to go see foreigners spend the equivalent of one month's wages for a local person on one meal.
Typical bus, Myanmar style

The contrasts are unbelievable. This morning I was loaded into the front seat of the mini-bus, direct for Yangon. No seat belts, which was not too alarming so long as we went slowly along the always-under-construction single lane roads. Once we hit an open stretch, the driver floored it and I looked over to see how fast we were going, but all dials were at zero, broken. I was convinced that if there was an accident, I would be dead. Serious. Decapitated on my ejection through the window of the bus. Perhaps fate intervened when the engine overheated and I had to change to another bus, seated in the middle (severe injuries but not certain death).
This boy was left at the orphanage at only 8 months

It was all worth the chance to visit the orphanage in Myaungmya, a tidy compound of 6 houses holding 14 staff and 61 children. Some of the children came when they were very young, and they clearly have been loved and cared for in this place.  I learned about their policies and procedures and came away with many ideas and insights for Bethel Children's Home.
Baby A, abandoned at 8 days

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Back to Burma

Here I am in Burma again so soon. I am back to check on things at Bethel Children’s Home. We left funds for a couple projects, and helped put some new procedures in place to make it run more smoothly, and I had promised to come back soon,
so here I am.

But first I have come to Myaungmya, in the Irrawaddy delta region, far to the west of Yangon, the capitol. There is another orphanage here that I had heard about and I wanted to check it out and see how it is run.
We came to Myaungmya on the 2006 trip to Burma (me, my dad, my aunt and my sister) as it is the place my father went to boarding school after essentially being orphaned himself.  At that time, only certain hotels could take foreigners, and the only game in town was a dilapidated old house being run by some ex-military thugs. The place was (is) filthy, the sheets and towels stank, and you could hear the rodents in the ceiling. Lots of guys were laying about, collecting a salary, apparently, but no one was cleaning. Helena and I christened the place “Thug Motel” and it stands out as one of my worst hotel experiences ever (although not hers, I think). So it’s crazy that I am back here again. It’s still the only game in town. They built some new rooms adjacent to the house but they already seem 50 years old (with 50 years of accumulated dirt).  The AC works. Essential, as it is moist out. Not humid, MOIST. And they now have wifi. (Not that this is not the ideal time of year to visit; the best weather is Dec-Feb).

The orphanage is impressive, having between 60 and 80 children at any one time.  They are fully funded by an organization from the U.S. so they don’t need our help, but the director, David, has been graciously hosting me and answering all my questions. On of my father’s old friends, Ba Hla Thein, also lives out here and I was able to spend time with him and his wife. He’s one the who originally founded the orphanage and even late in his life he is still giving back.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


I try to stay positive in this blog, find the good parts of everywhere I visit and not dwell on the negative.  Every place has negative aspects (except Tavarua, I think). However, the experience with the dog at Lake Bafa got me focused on the problem of homeless animals in Turkey.  In the Cihangir district of Istanbul (where our hotel is) it seems to have gotten much worse in the 2 years since we rented flat here. There are 11.5 million people in Istanbul and an estimated 150,000 homeless dogs. Probably 10 times as many cats. Turks have a different attitude than that of Americans and Europeans about the animals, which is hard for us to understand and to see when we visit. It's become particularly hard for me, and I feel like I am retreating from a country I used to love to visit - I ranked it in my top 2 countries in the world. But now I don't know if I'll be coming back. I  just can't stand to see indifference to suffering (one reason I won't be going back to India), even if it is the cultural norm.

So farewell Turkey, and farewell Istanbul, with your opulent palaces and dazzling mosques. I hope someday that the European side catches you up.